Writing the Self via Translation


Portrait of Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante by Oto Vega Ponce. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I. Censorship and Self-Translation in Three Trapped Tigers

And she tried to fancy what the flame of the candle
looked like after the candle is blown out…. 

Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s first work to be translated, and arguably his masterpiece, Tres tristes tigres, was also the author’s first opportunity to ‘closelaborate’ —a term he coined to speak of our collaboration in particular— in English, the language of literary riches and economic power. In “This Condition We Call Exile,” Joseph Brodsky noted that writers often acquire a significance and style as exiles that they didn’t have as natives in their own land. Political alienation, becoming a pariah sent into exile, would produce in Cabrera Infante a linguistic revolution, a need to stretch language as a writer to break out of what had become a prison, his own beloved country.

Part of this linguistic stretching was writing in English, in a language that had taken a dominant role in Cuba, therefore also playing a role in the conflict that led to his exile but from which, nonetheless, he could escape the pain of exile, entering a cerebral and imaginative literary dimension. Along the lines of the modernist ethos and the poet’s objectivity or impersonal relationship with writing, he wrote in English to create a distance, an impersonal space not because of too little emotion but rather where he could step back from too much emotion to bear.

First published in Spanish by Seix Barral, Spain’s principal promoter of the most significant Latin American writers during the turbulent 60s and 70s, Tres tristes tigres, or TTT, as Cabrera Infante would nickname the book, was awarded the prestigious Biblioteca Breve prize in 1964. But, before publication, under Franco who would not loosen his grasp on Spain until his death in 1975, the manuscript was obliged to pass under the pencil or rather eraser of censorship. The book that started out with the title Vista del amanecer en el trópico, and ended up as Tres tristes tigres, was transformed from a view of dawn in the utopic tropics of a revolution to a vast ‘Nighttown’ in Havana on the eve of the end of a world lost forever by the strange marriage of censorship and creativity. The final letter from the censor, Robles Piquer, that cleared the book for publication, is dated March 3, 1966. By that time Vista, or View, did not change only its title, but, unlike the tiger, it changed its stripes, in form as well as content, esthetically as well as ideologically, and this made the unsuspecting censor into a kind of collaborative ghostwriter. Or as Alejandro Herrero-Olaizola puts it in his well-documented study of The Censorship Files: Latin American Writers and Franco’s Spain, Tres tristes tigres exemplifies the “undeniable continuity of practice between the external authority of a dictatorial regime and the internal process resulting from self-censorship. It is to the interaction of official censorship and its creative personal twin that we owe TTT and the book that followed it, Vista del amanecer en el trópico.”

It is significant to observe not only the interaction between original writing and self-translation in both the original and the translation of Tres tristes tigres, but also the role of censorship in Cabrera Infante’s practice of self-translation in a context of political censorship he encountered in Spain as well as the traumatic after-effects of erasure and expulsion from Cuba. Finally, I would like to suggest how I as “closelaborator” of Cabrera Infante, while not sharing his political history or exile, was in tune with the urge to flee the referential logocentrism of language. As a young American on the margins of the 1968 revolutions, I fell into a radical questioning that was very much of the spirit of the late 1960s (which at one extreme included the Manson cult massacre). Part of that questioning included doubts about the integrity of the 60s revolutionary activity itself (Kissinger, as a young adult who had escaped Nazi Germany, experienced the violent conduct of student protests as reminiscent of the SA). Mainly, in terms of my own personal history, the 1960s, re-evaluating popular and mass culture, introduced a nostalgia for the 30s, 40s and 50s which people of my generation were experiencing in movie theaters and on television in those years. In this sense I seemed well chosen by GCI to accompany him as fellow irrepressible punster in the spirit of his apt dictum, inspired no doubt by Freud’s work on jokes and the unconscious: “Puns Hide Pain.”

Cabrera Infante was asked by the censor to cut material that dealt directly with the guerrilla warfare against Batista, and so he dropped all the vignettes covering episodes of the Cuban revolution and portraying the struggle to overthrow the dictator. Curiously, these vignettes would resurface in a much different context several years later, in a short and relatively austere book, a book more related rhetorically to Hemingway than to James Joyce. This book was to be given the name Vista del amanecer en el trópico [View of Dawn in the Tropics], and came out in 1974 as the aftermath of Cabrera Infante’s nervous breakdown in 1972, an emotional crisis resulting from directives from Cuba to isolate and to spy on him in exile, all of which produced a profound sense of paranoia and alienation. In this “View of Dawn,” the intense, accumulative and often poetic juxtaposition of vignettes, about tragic deaths and often heroic actions, would not serve the purpose of praising or supporting revolution but, like Mark Antony’s speech condemning the assassins of Cesar, would serve to rage against the farce and tragedy of history, of Cuban history, which, like many national histories, has been cruel and violent.

Already Cabrera Infante back in 1966 was no longer the editor of Lunes de Revolución, the literary supplement of Cuba’s new revolutionary newspaper from which he had been ejected after a protest against Fidel’s censorship of the film PM. Though from 1962 to 1965 he remained, at least on the surface loyal to the cause, posted to the Cuban consulate in Brussels—this was Fidel’s diplomatic way of making him invisible. Cabrera Infante was now divorced from the Revolution, especially after the death of his mother, and on his final exodus, first to Spain, then to England, with his second wife and two daughters. When he made London his home in exile, he was considered an enemy of the new Cuba and soon to become embattled with fellow leftist Latin American writers who were quick to criticize him for his critical stance, among them Julio Cortázar and García Márquez.

In this embattled state Cabrera Infante very much appreciated the friendship of Mario Vargas Llosa. During the censorship process of TTT in Spain he wrote to Vargas Llosa that “yes, political passages had been eliminated but there were still several pornographic, irreverent, anti-militaristic passages that needed to be eliminated, and the censors complained about the lack of linear structure. … I wrote to the censorship authorities and they did not even respond to my letter… I made good use of my time to make changes to the book, suppress things (all the unjustifiable vignettes, and went back to my original plan and restructured all the last part, adding a previously drafted section, and changing the title the way I wanted it before (Dec 29, 1966).”

Here he reveals that the book he wanted to write was not the book he began writing while still within the Revolution. Hence this very curious relationship with the Spanish board of censors, who, from one point of view could be seen as evil Kafkaesque bureaucrats, were, in other ways, just bungling scribes who were unintentionally on his side, proposing changes that went along with the book he was realizing more and more that he wanted to write, eliminating the revolutionary political bias and references in the book’s original version.          

But because Cabrera Infante was trying to shape a daringly innovative book, the censor, who complained about the fragmentary structure of the book, was not cooperative across the board. Sr. Piquer was not always on the Infante wavelength as, after all Spain was strictly Catholic, and therefore direct sexual slang words were unacceptable. As Eros was at the pulsing center of the Havana that Cabrera Infante was attempting to recapture in voce viva, such censorship seemed at first a huge roadblock. After the first set of changes that Cabrera Infante made upon the censors’ request, for example, the censors were not convinced that the book was changed enough; again the book had not been sufficiently purged of its sexual frankness and the “strong” language of the original had to be further mollified. Certain explicit anatomical terms, for example, needed to be attenuated, such as tetas or tits had to be tamed into senos or breasts.

Here again, however, the restrictions of censorship became a creative trouvaille; now sex would have to be alluded to, embroidered with verbal humor. Straightforward obscenities would be overtaken by double entendres, which would become the baroque principle around which the style of the writing and, hence, of the translation would revolve. Also, the love affairs of the mysterious woman Laura Diaz would become a postmodern “absent center” which now would appear as a tantalizing ellipsis in the chapter titled “Casa de los Espejos” or “Mirrormaze” —and as the allusive material in the psychiatric sessions which, originally a continuous narrative, were now fragmented throughout the novel, enigmatic vignettes from the past going into the future of an intimate history the reader feels motivated to reconstruct.


II.  The Translator as Secret Sharer

I highlight all this to contextualize Cabrera Infante’s situation at the time I came to collaborate on the translation in 1969. Cabrera Infante had begun it months earlier, with the collaboration of English poet Donald Gardner, whose previous translation credential had been poetry by Octavio Paz. Cabrera Infante’s context at this point was a double state of embattlement, embattled firstly with his native Cuba from which he had been exiled after joining a protest against censorship in the new regime of Fidel Castro in the early 1960s, and secondly, with Franco’s Spain, restricted under the rules of censorship then in place.

Comparing the original manuscript and the galley proofs, both of which now reside in the Princeton University archives, readers can discover that not only did Cabrera Infante depoliticize the novel TTT though still retaining references to Batista’s ailing nation (for example in the anecdote about a corrupt politician who cheats a starving musician out of a raise) but had opted for a “highly braided narrative structure” transforming the more linear narratives. By 1966 the novel had become obsessively playful with endless puns and departures from traditional page layout. Also a new tiger entered the narrative: Bustrófedon, who introduces the act of writing “left to right, right to left,” to which the Greek word ‘boustrophedon’ refers. We could describe this new character as the Joycean and linguistic ideologue of the book, the master of puns and parodies, who, curiously, brings political content back into the book, specifically in the taboo form of parodies of several Cuban writers who supposedly narrate the death of Trotsky (including Jose Marti who had died before Trotsky’s assassination). A controversial figure in Stalinist history, Trotsky was not exactly the Russian historical figure of whom Fidel wished to be reminded.

In this new and final form, TTT, ultimately an expression and a manifesto of Cabrera Infante’s protest, is also a document of self censorship, as it became a more hermetic book with a secret language and many secret references, hence self-censoring via its effect of concealment, which inevitably excluded many readers. Among the many changes wrought in the final version was the story about a famous Bolero singer. Cabrera Infante made “La Estrella the narrative center of the novel, while he suppressed all direct reference to the revolutionary guerrillas and buried his allusions to the fighting in the Sierra Madre in the mix of voices, puns, and graphic illustrations that gave TTT its texture. In the end, then, Cabrera Infante appropriated Cuban nightlife as a quasi-nostalgic representation of a vanished Cuba for an exiled writer; and thus, ultimately, as a delayed response to the Revolution’s censorship of the film “P.M”’s depiction of nocturnal Havana.”

During a recent translation project I’ve worked on, the author told me that in collaborating with me, he found that he was actually discovering what he really wanted to write by confronting problems and reworking the writing in translation. Something similar happened with Cabrera Infante because he had a kind of love affair with the English language and loved to play or make fun with and of it. English was a catalyst for Cabrera Infante to deal with his exiled condition in literary terms.

As Dante did with the Tuscan dialect in the Divine Comedy, Tres tristes tigres (turned into Three Trapped Tigers) was the first work to turn spoken "Cuban" into a literary language spiked with slang, wordplay and Joycean dislocutions, a mulatto Spanish marked by the Cuban of Havana, a specific region and city, but enriched and polyphonic with diverse cultural and literary references.

Our translation follows the original's subversive path by invading proper names and undermining the semantics of titles. The censor, for all the wrong reasons, helped clarify what the author in this case wanted to tell and not tell. Obscenities paraded as allusions in the original; this allusive texture would evolve in the English version. I was the perfect foil for Cabrera Infante’s transformation from Karl Marx to Groucho Marx. Double entendres with a single sense were my bread and butter in adolescence, and as a very young translator at that time I was very close to the crises of adolescence. I also was coming from the subversive sense of humor of an assimilated Jewish family in New York City that felt that it had to conform to mainstream society and suppress now distant origins. Alienation and exile of many types can produce psychological roadblocks or compensatory mechanisms to deal with what one feels helpless to change.

Translation, in this frame, can become a way to translate oneself into writing, taking another’s writing and putting your mark on it, transforming a self that feels helpless into an individual that has agency. Gaining access to the mind of an exemplary explorer of language such as Cabrera Infante made me realize that one of the most valuable ways in which a translator enriches the target culture is by being a good critic, that is, by choosing wisely the writers she translates.


Ida Vitale in LALT
Number 12

In our twelfth issue, we pay homage to two giants of Latin American letters: Ida Vitale of Uruguay, winner of the 2018 Miguel de Cervantes Prize, and Julio Ramón Ribeyro of Peru, whose work we celebrate on the ninetieth anniversary of his birth. We also feature poetry, interviews, and stories that range from the Caribbean to the Andes and from Central American to Brazil, exclusive book previews and reflections from translators, and a special section dedicated to the work of Edwin Lucero Rinza, a young poet who recently published the first ever verse collection in Kañaris Quechua.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Ida Vitale

Dossier: Julio Ramón Ribeyro





Brazilian Literature


Indigenous Literature

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Translation Previews and New Releases

Nota Bene